This discussion came up when I was chatting with a cousin of mine about atheism and religion. While I have been an open and out atheist for quite a few years now, he still strongly identifies himself as a catholic. That's not to say he ever goes to church (outside the occasional family funeral), he doesn't adhere to any of the rules and doesn't even celebrate the vast majority of the holidays, but he still clings to a very private undiscussed belief in a god and considers his catholic upbringing an identifier of his culture and family values. He went to catholic school as a little boy and while he does not have particularly fond memories of the place he still gets quite defensive if you just outright insult his religious institution.
He was telling me about a friend of his who is also, as he likes to put it "a huge atheist". He was telling me that said friend absolutely despises religous institutions and everything that they stand for, believes that its followers or either evil or stupid or both and that religion is solely responsible for all the horrible things that have happened in the world. To this my cousin bristled defensively, and automatically responded that his catholic upbringing was where he learned his morality. I told him to stop right there. I've heard this old tune before, and I'm not buying it. Here's the thing though: I'm not buying either argument.
Yes, I concede, more bad and immoral things have been done in the name of religion than good things have. However this does not mean that all bad things have religion at their core, and that if we were to obliterate religiosity from the face of the Earth we would all live in a wonderful Utopia of rainbows and sunshine. Sometimes religion is the cause. Sometimes religion acts as a perfect excuse. And sometimes, believe it or not, terrible things are done in the name of no religion at all.
On the other hand, don't even try to tell me that your religion is the source of your morality, cause you know that's bullshit as well as I do. It's not your holy book that is the source of the morals you were taught in catholic school, but the morals of the guy that just happened to be in charge of your religious institution at the time. The bible, let us not forget, contains some pretty ridiculous to outright gruesome excuses for morality. Don't forget the bible was used as an excuse to deem slavery moral in the southern US states, whereas now no one would dream of arguing that slavery is a moral thing because the bible says so. No one is protesting clothing factories for making cotton and polyester blends, cause technically you're not allowed to wear those either. Let's face it, Christian morality does not come from the bible, it comes from the guy that interprets it for you and tells you what to believe in.
And therein lies my real problem with the istitution of religion. Religion encourages and values blind faith and acceptance of whatever the guy in charge tells you. It disencourages or outright condemns critical thinking and people making up their own minds. It creates masses of sheep people which not only hinders the advancement of society at large, but it also makes for very gullible people that an evil person, once gaining power, can easily control and manipulate into doing whatever atrocious thing they have in mind. I think this is the core value of religion that let it be a breeding ground for sociopaths and a vector for doing terrible things, not the belief in a supernatural being itself. My hypothesis fits in to what happened in communist Russia, where one of the core values was rejecting religion, yet they took a page right out of the religious handbook by creating masses of brainwashed propaganda-fed people who were not allowed to dissent or discuss or think for themselves and manipulated them into doing some truly unspeakable things, no religion necessary. I think this friend of my cousin's might objectively agree with me, but either he has a bone to pick with a certain religous institution for personal reasons or perhaps he just angrily expressed this same opinon in a slightly warped and confrontational way.
My cousin also agreed with my opinion, and told me that he would not have been so oddly offended if this same message was delivered in this objective, not insult-filled way. Of course someone that was in the throes of the catholic lifestyle would undoubtedly take offence to what I have just described, but I think it is important for atheists to remember that not every person that defines themselves as religious are brainwashed fundies. While I still do not agree with my cousin's now patheistic-type belief, I'm not going to begrudge him his non-interfering-yet-still-there god because honestly I don't see a problem with it, and I have bigger fish to fry. Some many accuse me of being a "soft atheist" but I don't care, that's part of the beauty of atheism, none of us have to agree with each other or any institution and when stating our beliefs we represent no one but ourselves. I see my cousin is one step away from being the catholic version of a secular jew, and if he never takes the final step I don't think it matters all that much.
I love debate, and if there is something I have discussed here that was either not clear or a point of disagreement please point it out and I'll explain further. I just want both sides to stay away from faux arguments that do nothing other than to annoy the opposite party, which degenerates into huffing and hurt pride as opposed to reasonable debate and opening each others minds to new possibilities. If the other party is offended by the truth then that really can't be helped, but don't set out to annoy or offend without providing a sound argument unless, of course, you're not looking for a debate at all, just trying to legitimize your confrontational rant.